On the face of it, Israeli voters are confronted with a clear and familiar choice in Tuesday’s general election.
There is Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish leader of the rightwing Likud party whose security-first mantra has resonated with Israeli voters scarred by two recent wars and the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Facing him is Tzipi Livni, the leader of the centrist Kadima party and one of the most outspoken advocates of peace talks and territorial compromises with the Palestinians.
He is a veteran of Israeli politics, a former prime minister and finance minister, and a man who polarises public opinion. She is a relative newcomer, known as the Ms Clean of Israeli politics, but with far fewer achievements (and fewer mistakes) to her name.
Yet the choice is complicated by many factors, chiefly the complexity and fragmentation of Israel’s political scene. Polls show that neither Likud nor Kadima will win more than 25-30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, which means the winner will need to form a coalition with at least another two or three parties to have a majority.
That means the policies of the next government will be determined at least as much by backroom deals and coalition agreements than by the outcome of Monday’s vote.
A government that includes the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party – the shooting star of the 2009 campaign – will look very different from one that relies mainly on the support of the centre-left Labour party. Mr Netanyahu and Ms Livni will probably try to bring in both.
Until last week, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party was the clear favourite. Yet the latest batch of surveys, published on Friday, showed Kadima trailing its rival by a mere two seats. Many analysts believe the race is now too tight to call.
Eyal Arad, the veteran political fixer and Ms Livni’s campaign manager, last week exuded confidence about a Kadima victory: “I believe we are going to win this one. Most [undecided voters] are women and young people. For most of them Kadima is one of the considerations.”
With Likud continuing to lose support to Yisrael Beiteinu, Ms Livni may only need to persuade a small number of undecided voters to back Kadima in order to eke out a narrow victory.
Ms Livni, the foreign minister who took over the Kadima leadership from Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister, has long provided much of the intellectual driving force behind the party. Kadima’s agenda centres on the idea that Israel’s long-term future depends on the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
But the recent Gaza war – and the government’s failure to make progress in peace talks with the Palestinians – has made security, not peace, the core issue of this campaign. That works in favour of the hawkish, experienced Mr Netanyahu.
Ms Livni’s advantage is that, even after more than a decade in politics, she is seen as fresh and untainted. Israelis see her as likeable and trustworthy, but wonder if she has the experience. needed. According to Mr Arad, Israelis see a choice between “someone they know but don’t like [Mr Netanyahu], and someone they like but don’t know”.
Few believe Mr Netanyahu would survive as party leader if Kadima were to win. Meanwhile Kadima, founded just over three years ago, is seen as an artificial construct that lacks coherent ideology. A spell in opposition, some say, could lead it to break apart, leaving Likud and Labour to hoover up the remains.
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